Taking a Closer Look at Latino Pan-ethnic Identity

A recent report released by the Pew Hispanic Center indicated that the pan-ethnic terms of Latino and Hispanic do not resonate well with the population that they are intended to define. More specifically, a majority (51%) say that they most often identify themselves by their family’s country of origin (Mexican/Mexican American for example) compared to just 24% who prefer a pan-ethnic label.  These numbers are helpful in determining the extent to which a pan-ethnic identity exists within the Latino/Hispanic population, but do not provide a comprehensive depiction of the complexities associated with Latino identity.

The purpose of this blog report is to provide a brief summary of the academic literature associated with Latino group identity, with a specific focus on the concept of linked fate, a politicized form of group identity. Finally, I explore the impact that the negative tone of immigration policy has had on Latino pan-ethnic identity. In short, although more Latinos prefer to use national origin to identify themselves, Latino pan-ethnic identity is highly relevant to the political behavior of the Latino population and will only increase in salience as long as the political debates surrounding immigration policy is perceived to be hostile to the Latino community among the Hispanic population.

The Complexities of Latino Identity

The Pew report finding that more Latinos prefer to identify with their national origin relative to the pan-ethnic terms of Latino or Hispanic is consistent with just about every survey of Latinos that has asked Latinos for their preference. However, it is important to note that Latinos have secondary and even tertiary identities that have political significance.  Therefore, the presence of pan-ethnic and national origin based identities are not mutually exclusive for Latinos, as individuals can identify through both national origin and pan-ethnic terms. There has also been research that shows Latino identity can vary based on social context and interactions. In short, Latinos may choose to use a pan-ethnic identification term to describe themselves in some situations, but national origin in others. Therefore, although national origin may be the more dominant form of identity for most Latinos, pan-ethnic identity is very much relevant for this community and pan-ethnic identity can have important political consequences.

Linked Fate as a Proxy for Latino Pan-Ethnic Identity

One way to more directly assess the importance of pan-ethnic identity to Latino political behavior is to explore the presence of specific forms of group identity known to have political relevance for communities of color. Linked fate, for example, is a particular form of group identity that has been offered as the key theoretical explanation for both the relative political homogeneity within the African American community and the persistence of this cohesiveness in political behavior over time. Individuals with a sense of linked or common fate perceive that their life chances are connected to the overall well being of their racial or ethnic group. Recent surveys have found that linked fate is also applicable to the Latino population. The Latino Decisions “100 Days” Survey found for example that 72% of Latinos believe that their “success depends on the success of other Latinos/Hispanics.” This is very similar to the 68% found in the Latino National Survey from 2006.

The Latino National Survey provides an interesting added dimension to analysis of linked fate, as respondents were asked to also indicate a sense of linked fate between their national-origin group and Latinos more broadly. In previous work I have explored this aspect of the survey and found that 77% of respondents believe than the fate of their national-origin group is tied to that of other Latinos, which suggests that the overwhelming majority of Latinos see a clear and highly substantive connection between their national-origin group and the larger pan-ethnic community.

Immigration and the Formation of Pan-ethnic Identity?

Given the high number of respondents in the Pew Survey who state that Hispanics in the US “have many different cultures”, some might question what the motivation is for common or linked fate. Among other possible factors, I believe that there is reason to believe that the aggressive state immigration laws being passed across the country, as well as the tense political climate surround immigration policy more broadly, have heightened a sense of Latino pan-ethnic identity. As has been well documented here, immigration policy has remained either the most salient or second-most salient policy issue (behind the economy) for Latino voters over the past two years. Furthermore, over half of the respondents to the Latino Decisions “2010 8 State Election Poll” indicated that immigration policy was one of the most important issues deciding their vote choice, over a third indicating it was the most important issue.

More to the point of this blog post, 53% of respondents in that poll indicated that an anti-immigrant or anti-Hispanic sentiment across the country was important to their voting decision. If anything, this perception among the Latino electorate has only increased over time. In fact, a robust 76% of respondents to the June, 2011 ImpreMedia/Latino Decisions Tracking Poll believed “that an anti-immigrant or anti-Hispanic environment exists today.”  These attitudes are likely driven by a genuine concern that immigration policies like those passed in Arizona and Alabama would have a negative impact on lives of all Latinos. Regardless of immigration status, Latinos realize that they may face discriminatory treatment due to being defined by their ethnicity. In essence, regardless of whether Americans of Latin-origin view themselves as Latino, non-Latinos may, and this external identification can have significant consequences. This high rate of perceived discrimination due to shared ethnicity is important, as scholars have found discrimination to be one the underlying contributors to pan-ethnic identity.

Given the personal relationship Latino voters have to immigration policy, it is not hard to understand how immigration policy could increase a sense of pan-ethnic identity among Latinos. Sylvia Manzano has provided strong evidence that the positions taken by GOP Presidential candidates, including Romney, are not in line with the attitudes of most Latino voters toward immigration. Furthermore, the stance of GOP candidates on immigration during the GOP debates, including expressed approval for Maricopa County Sherriff Joe Arpaio (who is being investigated for pervasive bias against Latinos) during the Arizona debate, was difficult to overlook for Latino voters.

With 27% of Latinos in the January, 2012 Univision/ABC/Latino Decisions National Poll stating that they felt the GOP is being “hostile” to Latinos, the Republican Party’s handling of immigration is contributing to a rise in Latino pan-ethnic identity. If Latino linked fate follows the same pattern as that found for African Americans, it would be ironic if a party hoping to make in-roads with the Latino electorate ends up solidifying Latino Democratic partisanship due to their stance on immigration.

Gabriel R. Sanchez is an Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of New Mexico and Research Director for Latino Decisions who has published several articles focused on Latino group identity.


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